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The Arctic Ocean occupies a roughly circular basin and covers an area of about 14,056,000 km2 (5,427,000 sq mi), almost the size of Russia. The coastline is 45,390 km (28,200 mi) long. Much of the Arctic Ocean is covered by an ice “cap” which varies in extent and thickness seasonally. Many of our most beloved marine creatures thrive here, including whales, walrus, seals and countless birds. This marine wildlife, especially the endangered bowhead whale, is vital to the survival of the subsistence culture of the Inupiat people of Alaska’s North Slope.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the annual Arctic sea ice minimum in September is now declining at a rate of more than 13 percent per decade. The Arctic ice pack is thinning as well, and research shows that the Arctic may become ice free in the not so distant future. The Arctic Ocean is the focus of a mounting dispute between the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark. It is significant for the global energy market because it may hold 25% or more of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources.

In Alaska, the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas have provided traditional foods and sustained the cultural livelihood of the Inupiat people for thousands of years. With the threats of offshore oil and gas development, increased shipping traffic, coastal erosion from climate change, ocean acidification, changing weather patterns and melting sea ice, America’s Arctic Ocean is at risk.

The most visible change in the Arctic region in recent years has been the rapid decline of the perennial ice cover. The perennial ice is the portion of the sea ice floating on the surface of the ocean that survives the summer. This ice that spans multiple years represents the thickest component of the sea ice cover.
This visualization shows the perennial Arctic sea ice from 1979 to 2014. A graph overlay shows the area’s size measured in million square kilometers for each year. (Source: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio.)